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SIGGRAPH 2012: Virtual Production Heats Up

At the 39th SIGGRAPH conference in LA this week it was all about improving the virtual production workflow.

James Cameron

Autodesk wasted little time seizing the opportunity to tout its new streamlined virtual production workflow system that not only benefits James Cameron's upcoming Avatar sequels but everyone else as well. It's the democratization of virtual production, and that was the story of this year's SIGGRAPH, from The Foundry's evolving Mari and flourishing Nuke to Maxon's improved Cinema 4D to Side Effects' ubiquitous Houdini. Plus there was upstart NewTek with its new LightWave 3D Group under Rob Powers, which proposes an interactive all-in-one virtual production solution.

Of course, full on virtual production is practiced mostly by Cameron and Peter Jackson's Weta Digital. But many view this as a trickle down proposition. Eventually, the industry at large will be embracing this interactive, nonlinear process, which spans digital world building, character development and previs, to performance capture, virtual cinematography, VFX to final render.

As part of Autodesk's Entertainment Creation Suites 2013, the new virtual production enhancements will help studios of all sizes adopt this revolutionary process. The tools, found in MotionBuilder and Maya, will help improve performance, workflow and image fidelity.

MotionBuilder now loads, saves and merges files together much faster than before.

MotionBuilder now loads, saves and merges files together much faster than before, and is more closely integrated to the editorial workflow. Motion capture and live input data can be recorded to disk in the software's non-linear editor so directors can record multiple takes in rapid sequence; actors can act out their scenes un-interrupted; and stage crew can work instantly with editorial to build and refine shots. The software also includes HD SDI video output support, which allows MotionBuilder to be integrated into studio video broadcast systems, designed to introduce zero frames of lag. This gives directors and camera operators more accurate real time feedback on their virtual camera work.

"The goal was to make a cleaner, neater, tighter, better solution for virtual production and overcame a lot of the problems they had on Avatar," explained Bruno Sargeant, Autodesk's virtual production senior product manager. "So after 18 months, the first batch of technology became available in the 2013 releases.

"You can drop and play that back and then go on to another recording session and lay down another track while previewing the prior one and keep going and keep going. We tested this up to 100 characters and still were able to play back 10 at a time on top of that. That ability in itself has changed how a stage session works. We're also recording to disk and so you're not limited to 30 seconds or whatever it was before. So now the system is no longer limiting what a director wants to record and capture. He can do what he wants and get the take that he wants. And that's huge. And that brought in new data sets and load time. So we worked on that so you can load large scenes and large digital sets and work with it immediately and also with more complex characters. And at the end of the session you've got 49 minutes. Before that, it would take about 30 seconds of every minute of recorded media to save that. Now it's instant."

Joe Letteri

"You've got to be able to do this onset to be able to make more informed choices," added Weta Digital's Joe Letteri, currently finishing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Therefore, improving the virtual production front end workflow is imperative for Cameron. "He wants to know where the character is when composing his shot because that's integral to the composition and balance. So now we can do a little bit more: It's still not full on virtual reality, but it's better, because, if you're doing it more accurately up front, you're not thrown off by misdirection, something that is an artifact of the limitation of the system like a shot is too soft because it's low resolution or the light's getting into the wrong place.

"Once Jim got involved more and more in the process, he realized that everything adaptable. There are just parts of it that you didn't consider before because you were coming from a different direction. How you have things that are put together in different ways. With our models department building both the sets and the costumes the specialization happens differently in the virtual world. We're just trying to be more efficient in pulling this all together."

Meanwhile, the high frame rate topic heated up with Lightstorm's Jon Landau declaring in a lively discussion that it's an important part of the 3-D revolution. It improves the experience by removing unwanted motion artifacts and restoring brightness. He brought along the same informative frame rate comparison demo hosted by Cameron shown elsewhere. Landau also insisted that The Hobbit pullback is not really a setback since there is no global infrastructure in place yet to screen the first of Jackson's trilogy at 48 fps on very many screens.

Doug Trumbull

As far as overcoming the dreaded "video look," industry pioneer Doug Trumbull (who brought his own Showscan Digital frame rate comparison demo) reiterated that you could combat that through the use of variable frame rates on shots or on characters and objects within shots. However, when Digital Domain's new CTO Darin Grant questioned the added cost in rendering and data wrangling for VFX, Landau shot back that there are "smart" solutions to keep costs down. "Don't render everything at 60 or 48; double expose," Landau said. "Animators don't have to work at higher frame rates. You could limit that to a Panda fight. This is about managing public expectations."

ILM's Dennis Muren echoed Landau and Trumbull's enthusiasm for higher frame rates. He's witnessed mostly positive results in experimenting with higher frame rates on his Sony monitor at home. He noticed, for instance, that Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion seemed smoother on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad Blu-ray even though the Cyclops looked more rubbery.

Dennis Muren

"I think alternating frame rates is a directorial choice," Muren conceded afterward. "I don't think it's that difficult to do. It might take us out of the story and I don't know if you want to mix it around too much. But I personally think that you just want the movie to be one way. You adjust to the world."

For Cameron, Jackson and Trumbull, higher frame rates help open a window to a more life-like movie going experience. "Nobody knows and it's all just theoretical until you go out and see it," Muren added.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.

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